Exploring the art of prose


My Demons by Jill Rosenberg

Image is a color photograph of an NYC subway car pulled into a station; title card for the third-place winner of the CRAFT 2023 First Chapters Contest, "My Demons" by Jill Rosenberg.

This opening excerpt of Jill Rosenberg’s My Demons is the third-place winner of the 2023 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, guest judged by Rebecca Makkai.

It’s a daring thing to start a novel with the characters already fallen to pieces—but then, almost everything about My Demons is daring. We meet Raffi and Mira the night before Mira is set to check into a rehabilitation center, a night on which she has no interest in exercising control. Before the chapter is finished, someone will engage in sexual congress with a pumpkin. Fictional scenes of clubbing and drug use tend to be either predictable or try-hard or disorienting, and yet this episode is anything but. Riveting, bold, and surprising at every turn, these pages pass at the clip of a taut short story, one you’d hate to see end. How fortunate for us that in this case, more pages will follow!  —Rebecca Makkai


The night before I start treatment at Harrington, Raffi and I go to Foxy Night at the Cock in the East Village. We have to wait in line to get in.

It’s eleven, and it’s dark, but it’s lit-up city dark. You can see anything if you focus—rotting food on the ground, bugs and probably rats too—but nobody looks down. They look at each other or they look where they’re going.

Raffi and I are going into the bar for two drinks. Then we get to go home: one long ride on the F train back to our apartment in Brooklyn, where Raffi’s bed is in his room and my bed is in my room, but often we sleep together in the same bed, at least for part of the night. This part of the night is standing in line to get into the Cock and Raffi’s hand holding mine.

It’s okay if something bad happens tonight because tomorrow, at Harrington, there will be doctors and nutritionists and therapists to help me. Tonight I can starve and puke and smoke and take pills.

And Raffi can do whatever he wants. He can get angry or sick of me, and he can go off with someone he wants to fuck because tomorrow I will start to get over it.

I scan the line anyway: six men, two women, no one we know.

One good thing: It’s finally October, and I love October. The sweet scent of fall is here already, even in the dirty city you can smell it, like bread baking in a neighbor’s oven, there and good but just out of reach. Soon the trees will turn orange, yellow, and red, and that scent will be everywhere.

Six men: one lanky and dirty-blond, one with dark skin and bleached-blond hair, three pale brunet, one hiding his hair under a hat.

There’s a chill in the air, so Raffi and I huddle close, a bubble of warmth in a cold stretch of ocean.

“Do my boots look weird?” I ask him. They’re black leather and go all the way up to my knees. Raffi chose these boots and my short skirt to match. He said I might as well wear short skirts with legs like I’ve got. They’re grossly skinny, he adds sometimes, but he still encourages me to show them off.

They’re skinny now, but they won’t be if I go to Harrington, and Raffi says I have to go.

Now he says, “Your boots look sexy, Mira.”

The world is full of contradictions, and tonight that’s okay. Tonight I am collecting contradictions.

The line is moving, but it’s moving slowly. In the window of the bar, there is a red neon rooster, the only signage, a hint at what’s inside. There are three men left in line: one blond, two brunet.

Raffi’s hair is dark, thick, and silky. He’s half-Sephardic and half-Ashkenazi, but his hair is all Arab-Sephardic, jet-black and super-soft. I am all-Ashkenazi, straight from the Holy Land via the Holocaust.

Look how pale you are, Raffi said to me once. So pink and petite, such light blue eyes. A Jewish mother’s dream come true.

If Raffi and I have kids, they will be three-quarters Ashkenazi and one-quarter Sephardic. We both prefer blondes, but we love each other.

And I love my boots because they’re heavy, which means I burn more calories as I walk. They turn any endeavor into time well spent, even at the Cock—even though, usually, I hate going to the Cock with Raffi. There’s always someone he sees and wants, and when he sees and wants, he gets sad and distracted, or he’s victorious, and then I’m insignificant. Even when we go to lesbian bars, it’s never for me. I end up hating it, or I hate Raffi, or I hate myself for going along with Raffi.

But tonight that won’t happen. Tonight I won’t even think about that happening because it doesn’t matter what happens tonight. I can enjoy the good until it goes bad, and then, tomorrow, I will work on switching everything to good, good forever and always.

Raffi chose Harrington for me, so he’s connected to it. He came with me when I visited and registered. I only have to attend group three times a week, individual therapy once a week, and see the psychiatrist and nutritionist once or twice for consultation. That’s it for now.

Right now the bouncer stamps our hands with a red rooster and lets us in. A man and woman are slow dancing by the door. They smile and sway. Then the guy puts his hands on the woman’s breasts. He squeezes them, like it’s the funniest joke in the world. They both throw their heads back and laugh.

The bar smells like alcohol and tarnished metal and mold and too many people. The music is so loud and thumping it feels like the walls and floor are thumping too. Then it feels like my insides are thumping.

“Are you okay?” I ask Raffi.

He looks different once we’re inside. His posture is hunched, his skin goes sallow. “Are you okay?” I ask again.

“Yup,” he says. “Just looking for a table.”

“You don’t seem okay,” I tell him, but he can’t hear me over the music.

If he could hear me, he’d say, You’re not worried about me. You’re worried about yourself.

He once said, You’re the most self-centered person I know.

Everyone is self-centered, he told me later. You just have particularly impressive focus.

But I am going to Harrington to get over myself.

When we finally find a table, Raffi pulls out my chair and says, “Sit here.” Before he leaves to get our drinks, he kisses the top of my head. Then he looks like himself again, the way he does when we’re at home.

Here are a few ways in which Raffi has found someone to hook up with in the past:

  1. We were at the Cock, sitting by ourselves. A chubby man with a straggly beard came to our table. He sat down next to me, not Raffi. His eyes twitched whenever he spoke. I was certain Raffi wouldn’t be interested, so I left to get drinks. When I came back, they were kissing at the table.
  2. There was the time at the Squeeze Box when I came out of the bathroom to find Raffi flirting with a guy he’d been eying all night, an older man with a boyish face and ice-blue eyes. Raffi sulked and sulked when nothing happened that night, but the next day the guy invited him to an expensive restaurant on the Upper East Side, then back to his apartment, where they fucked in a rooftop jacuzzi tub. They dated for five days.
  3. There was the friend of Raffi’s who had always been just a friend, until he met up with us at the Phoenix and went to the bathroom with Raffi and gave him a handjob. Later they went back to the bathroom to kiss.
  4. There was the guy who wanted to share a cab back to Brooklyn and offered to pay for the cab and sat between me and Raffi. He started kissing Raffi in the car, put his hands all over the jeans Raffi was wearing, which we’d purchased earlier that day and charged to my mother’s credit card.
  5. There was the time we were almost free and on our way home, and a guy ran after us, yelled Wait!, and told Raffi he’d been wanting to kiss him all night.

Raffi makes it back to the table with two drinks for each of us.

The man and woman who were dancing by the entrance are sitting at the table next to ours. The woman took off her sweater, now all she’s wearing is a tight tank top with spaghetti straps.

I tell Raffi I don’t want to go to Harrington.

He pushes my drink closer to me. “You’re gonna like it,” he says.

“What do you mean? You asked for diet, right?”

He tilts his head and blinks slowly. He meant Harrington, not the drink.

“I’m not going to like it,” I say. “I’m not supposed to like it.”

“It’ll be just like school. You love school.”

Raffi’s mother let him drop out of school in tenth grade, after he got an almost-perfect score on the SATs. They told the school he’d get private tutoring, but his mother thought he was already too smart for his own good. I did okay on the SATs, but only after a ton of tutoring.

We met in college, right before I graduated and Raffi dropped out. We didn’t meet before that because I spent most of my time in the darkroom or at the painting studio, and Raffi spent most of his time in Manhattan with his friend Sally, whose parents had a pied-à-terre in the West Village. Sally was his best friend in college and still is one of his best friends, but she moved to LA after graduation and her parents sold their pied-à-terre, so now I’m Raffi’s special one the way she used to be.

The woman at the next table lights a cigarette and holds it in front of her friend so he can take a drag. Her arms are tiny girl arms, way more petite than mine. The guy’s lips press against her fingers as he inhales.

Last spring, Raffi visited Sally in LA and had a threesome with her and her boyfriend. Now, he pulls his chair closer to mine. The DJ plays a slow song, like he knows I need it.

Raffi looks me in the eyes and smiles like he loves me. He puts his hand on mine. But then the guy from the next table comes over. He’s wearing dark Diesel jeans just like Raffi’s. He’s tall and thin and blond. He motions to our empty chair. Raffi nods, and I think the guy is going to sit down, but he doesn’t. He takes the chair back to his table, which is a relief, unless it reminds Raffi of all the other times he’s been ignored, and now he’ll want to make himself feel better by finding someone who won’t ignore him.

“You seem nervous too,” I tell him. I can feel his leg near mine under the table.

“I’m not nervous. You’re nervous,” he says. He pushes his empty glass out of the way and leans closer to me. “Do you need a Klonopin?” he asks.

The point of Harrington is to prepare me for a real life with Raffi, the life both of us want with each other, which isn’t this fleeting desire for sex but real love. If I’m better, he can feel safe to choose a life with me, and then I can feel safe. I won’t have to go to bars with him when I don’t want to. I’ll let myself stay home and trust he’ll come back to me. He won’t choose to have a life like ours with a man because he doesn’t feel safe with men the way he feels safe with me. And I feel safe with him in a way I don’t feel safe with anyone. Already, I do.

He just wants me to get better. He wants to live with me and marry me and be a family— that’s what he told his mother. And she was happy to hear it. But I have to be brave and better for it to happen. These men are to fuck, not to make family.

“I want pot,” I tell him. I want to fast-forward to the end of the night when we get to smoke and eat cake. Then I can throw it up and brush my teeth and get back into his bed and smoke some more. Our apartment feels so far away and so perfect.

“I just want to feel happy and calm,” I say, but then I feel like I’m talking about myself too much. “I have a headache,” I tell him. “I need to smoke.”

He leans over and kisses my cheek. “You’re gonna be fine,” he says. He takes my hand and holds it under the table. He puts both of our hands on his thigh. The jeans that he’s wearing and the skirt that I’m wearing have hung in closets together in two different states. I have to go to the bathroom, but I don’t say anything because I don’t want to leave him alone at the table.

But then Raffi says, “Come to the bathroom with me,” and we get up and push through the tables and groups of people in our way.

When we get to the bathroom, he locks the door and takes out our pills.

Raffi is in charge of our prescriptions. We combine the ones that are take-as-needed. I tell him I need a Provigil, but he says no. “You need to be less vigil,” he says.

Raffi never takes the uppers because they make him anxious. “I want a Provigil,” I tell him. “It’s my special night.”

“You have to wake up early tomorrow. You need to get a good night’s sleep.”

I glare at him. “Provigil,” I say. Then I start singing, the made-up song I sing when I want my drugs, but he shakes his head.

“I’m serious,” he says. “It’s not good for you.”

“I want it,” I tell him. “You do lots of things that aren’t good for you.”

He sighs. “Don’t be mad at me,” he says. “I’m trying to help you.” But he caves and gives me half a pill. “Happy?” he says.

I crush the pill on the lip of the sink with a quarter, shape it into a line with a credit card, then snort it though a rolled-up dollar.

When I finish, Raffi says, “Chaser,” and he hands me a Klonopin. He takes one too. We chew them and let the powder dissolve on our tongues, which is what he taught me to do.

Once, when Raffi first came to live with me in graduate school, the two of us were in the bathroom together at a party. A woman from my program had been hitting on me, which I didn’t exactly realize. When Raffi and I went into the bathroom together, he mentioned it, then said, “I think you’re at some kind of peak in your beauty and charm.”

I had unintentionally lost weight, mostly because I was sad and lonely before he came to live with me, but also really into the work I was doing.

“She wants you,” Raffi said, and then kneeled in front of me, while I sat on the toilet. I remember thinking that my bare thighs looked thin, though they’ve gotten significantly thinner since then. “Can I kiss you?” he asked, while I was still on the toilet. He put his hand on the back of my neck and gave me a long kiss on the lips.

When we come out of the bathroom, it’s almost time for the show. A tall woman in a white ribbed tank is making space for a stage. We watch her push tables and chairs out of the way. She has big hands and angular shoulders, blue-and-green tattoos winding up and down her arms.

I can feel the Provigil sliding down the back of my throat. “I like tall women,” I tell Raffi. It’s not just to catch his interest or make him jealous. I really feel it in the moment, like I want to touch that woman’s arms. I want to put my mouth on them, like wanting is simple and I know what I want. I am in a perfect state of wanting.

Raffi and I stand in the crowd close to the stage. On Foxy Night, everyone gets ten play dollars at the door. They’re Monopoly dollars, but they’re called Foxy Dollars at the Cock—we use them to judge the contestants.

First up: a stocky lesbian with a shaved head, short neck, and fat face. I hate her immediately. I try to stand still and act like I don’t hate her, because I shouldn’t hate her, but my insides hate her. I can feel all of my organs flaming and flailing.

The woman stands in front of us in her slinky white dress, so close I can see the hair on her legs. She points to the DJ, and he starts the music, a female vocalist who screeches and screams. The woman on stage bends her knees, then rolls onto her back, propping her hips with her hands and lifting her legs into the air. Her dress pools around her. The music stops for a second; then, as she spreads her legs, it starts again.

The sound of the crowd overtakes the music. The stylish gay men and their fawning fag-hags chant and cheer. I see the group from the table next to ours, the spaghetti-strapped girl swinging her dainty arms in the air.

I picture a visible odor escaping from between the lesbian’s legs, slinking out over us, sticking to our hair and skin.

Raffi is next to me. I want to tell him that I am not like that woman on stage, and I don’t think she should be like that either, but I wish everyone could be like her if anyone is going to be, even if it’s not a choice. But I don’t want Raffi thinking about her at all, so I don’t say anything. I stand with my legs squeezed together.

Then another woman walks through the crowd and onto the stage. She is also masculine and also has a shaved head, but she is thin and pretty.

She’s holding a candle. The music stops. She kneels in front of the fat woman, her head between the V of the woman’s thighs. She puts the wick-end of the candle in her mouth, then inserts it into the fat woman’s vagina before striking a match and lighting the wick.

I want the flame from that candle to explode into a huge fire and burn us all down.

The thin woman recites a poem with the word pussy in it, then puts her mouth around the flame to extinguish it. She uses her teeth to remove the candle. The fat woman’s legs swing down, and the two of them stand together, hold hands, and bow. They seem to think they deserve all the dollars people throw at them.

Once they’re off the stage, I feel a little bit better, though feeling better makes me feel worse for judging them in the first place.

The next contestant is male. He is carrying a large pumpkin, and the weight of it forces his hips to sway and his biceps to flex.

When he gets onto the stage, he lifts the pumpkin above his head, then lays it on the floor in front of him.

There is a large knife in a holster strapped to his thigh. He uses it to carve a hole in the side of the pumpkin.

When he stands up again, the music starts, a low-pitched strumming. The man lays the knife on the floor and removes the holster from his thigh. He unbuckles his belt and unzips his pants. His boxers are white with orange-and-black polka dots. He turns, slowly, in a circle. On the back of his shorts there is a big red splash of color and black block letters that read:



The man pulls his cock out through the slit in his boxers. He bounces it in his hand. I feel my breath sync with his movements. Then he starts rubbing himself and I can feel that too, like my body has turned into his body, and what he’s doing, he’s doing to me.

I forget about the pumpkin until he picks it up and holds it at hip level, his hands cupping the curve. He presses his cock to the hard shell. From thirty feet away, I feel the weight of the pumpkin against my thighs. The music gets louder, a guy singing in falsetto as the man on stage turns so that people across from us can see. His backside is flexing, his muscles moving under his shorts. I feel like I have a cock too and it lifts my skirt as it gets hard. The sound of the falsetto is under there too, straining, sparking big waves of vibration all through me.

The man turns again, slowly, showing as many of us as possible as he pushes his cock through the hole in the side of the pumpkin. His eyes close. His mouth falls open. He fucks the pumpkin for only a minute.

I want to give him all of my Foxy Dollars and all my real dollars to keep going. I want to make him our ruler, our collective role model. I want him to fuck that pumpkin forever in front of us, taking what’s there to take because he’s bold and brave and it feels good to be bold and brave and it’s simple as that: I can be a girl in a skirt and a boy with a cock, who’s free to fuck a pumpkin in public.

A few feet behind the stage is the back room, and in there men are touching each other just because they can and they want to. People are allowed to make that choice.

On the walk to the subway to go home, I want to tell Raffi how good I feel, that there was a lesson in each of those performances, and it’s the same lesson.

But I don’t try to explain it. I don’t have to.

We walk down Second Avenue to Houston Street, past darkened store fronts and lit-up bars and restaurants, lit-up stars in the sky above us, even if we can’t see them.

I want to expand my focus. I want to feel free of my body and trying to control my body. I can go into any restaurant I want. I can eat whatever I want. I can stargaze. I feel willing and ready. The air we’re breathing is dark and cold and energizing. I want to be driven and disciplined and free all at once. I am an artist and I want to make art. I can make it out of anything. It’s the lesson of Foxy Night: we can do whatever we want until we die.

But I’ll ruin the feeling if I try to explain it, so I just say to Raffi, “I feel ready for tomorrow. I feel good about tomorrow.”


JILL ROSENBERG is a graduate of Vassar College and the MFA program at the University of Montana. Her short stories have been published in the The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, swamp pink, and other journals.


Featured image by Adi Goldstein, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

Years ago, I started to read David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Depressed Person” and thought: he got this so right, and I don’t want to read it.

In his MasterClass, Malcolm Gladwell gives advice along these lines: If you’re writing something complex, something readers will need time to make sense of, give them some candy too, something easy to consume and fun to talk about. He was referring to intellectually challenging nonfiction, but it made me wonder if I could apply the technique to my fiction. I’ve been told that my work is too dark, too painful. Let some sunshine in! multiple readers have advised. Could I balance the suffering with a bit of candy?

But how do you give readers a piece of candy when your narrator insists on throwing up any candy she consumes? How do you show the light that she can’t see?

I wanted to write a novel that would help people understand what it’s like to live with an eating disorder, with relentless, repetitive, obsessive thoughts. But a narrator with relentless, repetitive, obsessive thoughts is difficult to read. The mind of someone with an eating disorder is not just dark, but boring. If you deny yourself nutrition and then puke up anything you do eat, you’re going to have a lot of dull, exacting thoughts about food and your body, the same thoughts again and again.

How could I show how boring and relentless these thoughts can be without boring the reader? I didn’t want to write a novel only for people who share my narrator’s obsessions—those who read cookbooks for fun and spend hours watching “what I eat in a day” videos, so hungry their minds won’t focus on anything else. Those people already know what it’s like.

How could I leave space for readers when Mira, my narrator, has too many thoughts about everything, most of which are incredibly unpleasant? That’s what everyone kept telling me: You need to leave more space for the reader.

Getting that criticism felt awful. I felt bad for my character, embarrassed for her. She was too much, shared too much. She should keep her terrible thoughts to herself. Yet it felt like an unfair criticism, of her and me. She really does have too many thoughts. She wants to control what everyone else is doing and thinking. She can’t relax, can’t enjoy a piece of candy, doesn’t like sunshine. I felt defensive on her behalf. It was too miserable to read her thoughts? What about Mira? What about the rest of us who have minds like hers? Was she/I being hurtful by sharing her view of the world? That was basically my criticism of Wallace’s story, wasn’t it?

Which brings me back to Malcolm Gladwell. What was the difference between giving my readers some candy and sugar-coating an experience that I wanted to show in a way that was revealing and realistic? When I was younger, I’d have argued that it would betray my character and my own aims as a writer to take Gladwell’s advice. I wanted to uncover the dark, dirty mess of the psyche, of the world we live in. I thought that was the only way to tell the truth.

As I got older, I realized that relief and joy can feel as profound as pain and suffering, that the human state of being is a state of flux, not just in theory, but in my own experience. I began to feel the poignancy that comes when we feel and acknowledge the transient nature of human emotion.

So I tried to show how that worked for my character specifically. In my opening chapter, she wants to control not just her own body, but the other bodies at the bar. This impulse hits its apex when she watches a performance in which one woman makes a shrine out of another woman’s body. My character’s thoughts in response are hateful and misogynistic—she knows she’s being terrible and condemns herself for it, but her disgust and anger persist. Then we get our candy: a man proudly fucking a pumpkin on stage. At this sight, Mira is overcome with relief and optimism. It’s possible that a man fucking a pumpkin at a bar is the literary equivalent of candy corn or black licorice—not to everyone’s liking, but it isn’t just a fun aside. She’s genuinely feeling joyful right then, and I wanted to shine a light on that joy.

At the end of the chapter, she’s not lying to herself when she says she’s ready to embrace treatment. She’s not candy-coating. It’s real in that moment—she’s thinking clearly; she’s motivated, but this mood and conviction will not last either.

Ironically, one of the nonliterary things I learned in writing this novel is that candy and “junk” food are not unhealthy indulgences you should strive to avoid, but a delightful part of a full life. It’s only a problem if that’s all you eat.


JILL ROSENBERG is a graduate of Vassar College and the MFA program at the University of Montana. Her short stories have been published in the The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, swamp pink, and other journals.